Alan raises an eye­brow at the out­landish claims made by the two brothers be­hind the Magna Bri­tan­nia con­cern­ing the ages of some Cumberland res­i­dents

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Tall tales from the Magna Bri­tan­nia

Re­cently, I came across the Cumberland sec­tion of a re­mark­able and sadly un­fin­ished work called Magna Bri­tan­nia (de­scribed in its sub­ti­tle as ‘a con­cise topo­graph­i­cal ac­count of the sev­eral coun­ties of Great Bri­tain’), pub­lished by the an­ti­quar­ian brothers Daniel and Sa­muel Lysons be­tween 1806 and 1822. In that year Sa­muel died and the pro­ject (which in the­ory would even­tu­ally have cov­ered all 86 coun­ties in Eng­land, Wales and Scot­land) came to an abrupt halt.

The county sur­veys un­der­taken by the brothers are no­table be­cause they gave plenty of at­ten­tion to top­ics such as man­u­fac­tur­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, agri­cul­ture and pop­u­la­tion. This means that to­day, two cen­turies later, the sec­tions that were fin­ished (a to­tal of nine, al­pha­bet­i­cally from Bed­ford­shire to Devon) are a valu­able re­source for his­to­ri­ans.

I was fas­ci­nated by part of the Cumberland ac­count that dealt with ‘longevity’. The brothers stated that dur­ing their vis­its to the county they were struck by the num­ber of very great ages recorded on grave­stones and, talk­ing to lo­cal peo­ple, learned “it was the gen­er­ally re­ceived opin­ion, that the in­hab­i­tants of this county were re­mark­ably long lived”.

They de­cided to do more re­search and dis­cov­ered that, since 1771, clergy in the dio­cese of Carlisle had been in­structed to en­ter the age of the de­ceased in the burial reg­is­ters. The sta­tis­tics that they came up with were re­mark­able. Ob­serv­ing that only about one per­son in ev­ery 32 reached the age of 80 in the coun­try as a whole, they were as­ton­ished to find in many Cumberland parishes the pro­por­tion was as high as one in four, and in some ar­eas more than one in 25 peo­ple lived to be over 90. They gave nu­mer­ous ac­tual ex­am­ples, taken from parish reg­is­ters, to il­lus­trate their find­ings – a list of 144 in­stances of peo­ple liv­ing to be 100 years or more.

The brothers claimed to have tested the ac­cu­racy of many of th­ese find­ings but we might be more scep­ti­cal. The only re­li­able ev­i­dence would be a bap­tism and a burial en­try (as con­trasted with lo­cal sto­ries and fam­ily tales), but as fam­ily his­to­ri­ans, we all know how dif­fi­cult it can be to make ab­so­lutely def­i­nite links. Take a made-up ex­am­ple. John Bragg was buried in 1790. The brothers look back through the reg­is­ters and find a John Bragg chris­tened in 1695. They there­fore as­sume that John Bragg was 95 when he died. But they don’t no­tice the burial of John Bragg, in­fant, in 1696, and they’ve ig­nored the bap­tism of a quite dif­fer­ent John Bragg in 1729.

Their most spec­tac­u­lar claim was about the long­est-lived of all. John Tay­lor was born at Gar­rig­ill, near Al­ston in the North Pen­nines, at an un­speci­fi­fied date (which is wor­ry­ingly vague!) and he worked as a lead-miner. Tay­lor was said to have been 14 or 15 at the time of the so­lar eclipse on 29 March 1652 (so would have been born in ap­prox­i­mately 1638). From 1652 on­wards, the brothers write, he was a work­ing miner for no less than 100 years, liv­ing in Al­ston, County Durham, and in Scot­land. They state that he mar­ried at the age of be­tween 60 and 70 (again, con­ve­niently im­pre­cise and per­haps highly im­plau­si­ble for other rea­sons!) and then had nine chil­dren by his wife, who died in 1758. He even­tu­ally died, they tell us, at Craw­ford, La­nark­shire, at an equally wor­ry­ing un­spec­i­fied date, be­lieved to be 1772 (they con­sulted the min­is­ter at Mof­fat, who tes­ti­fied to this but ad­mit­ted no burial reg­is­ter was kept in the parish). So, he was at least 135 years old at the time of his death.

It’s ev­i­dent that this tale is al­most en­tirely fan­ci­ful – not least, the idea that a lead-miner (av­er­age age of death 38) would have worked un­der­ground for 100 years, though per­haps that heroic vigour was also demon­strated in his al­leged mar­i­tal his­tory! Even with the mir­a­cles of mod­ern medicine, the long­est ver­i­fied life­span is 122 years. Sadly, John Tay­lor’s story is just too fan­tas­tic to be­lieve – but wouldn’t it be great to have him on your fam­ily tree!

Sadly, John Tay­lor’s story is just too fan­tas­tic to be­lieve – but wouldn’t it be great to have him on your fam­ily tree!


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